Finland’s capital since 1812, Helsinki is called the “White City of the North,” a reference to the gleaming white Neoclassical buildings commissioned by its Russian rulers in the 19th century. It also boasts impressive modern architecture, from the copper, glass, and rock Temppeliaukio Church to the futuristic Kiasma center. The city is at its best in summer, when long days and clear light lift the mood of Finns, and the parks and waterfront cafés fill with lively crowds.
POINTS OF INTEREST
In summer, a short season that must sustain a nation through a long winter, the people of Helsinki sun themselves in the cobbled Market Square (Kauppatori). Finnish craftsmen sell handmade wares alongside fish, fruit, and vegetable stalls. During the Baltic Herring Market in October, farmers come by boat from the archipelago region of Aland just like their forefathers did. Among the fine buildings lining the square are the blue-painted City Hall, by Carl Ludwig Engel (1778–1840), and the 19th-century red and yellow brick Old Market Hall, containing several gourmet and specialist food shops. Leading westward from Market Square is Esplanadi park, a favorite gathering place for Finns, who can be seen strolling down its wide boulevards. At the eastern end of the park is a bronze statue of a nude, Havis Amanda (1905) by Ville Vallgren, now a symbol of the city.
With its dark redbrick exterior, this Russian Orthodox cathedral is a colorful landmark in the ubiquitous white of the historic city center. Its green copper roof and gold “onion” domes make it highly visible on Helsinki’s skyline. Designed in the ByzantineRussian architectural style by A.M. Gornostayev of St. Petersburg, the cathedral was built between 1862 and 1868. Uspenski is the biggest Russian Orthodox church in Scandinavia, and its spacious interior is resplendent in gold, silver, red, and blue. The terrace gives magnificent views over the heart of Helsinki, and the immediate area has been improved by converting old warehouses into shops and restaurants. The sheer exuberance of the building forms a sharp contrast to the Lutheran austerity of Helsinki Cathedral.
Senate Square (Senaatintori) is the masterpiece of Carl Ludwig Engel (1778–1840). It was built by Finland’s Russian rulers in the early 1800s, and a statue of Czar Alexander II of Russia stands in the center. The pleasing proportions of the square are best viewed from the top of the steps to Helsinki Cathedral. From here, the Senate Building lies to the left and the University of Helsinki to the right. Adjacent to the square is Sederholm House (1757), the oldest stone building in Helsinki.
The five green cupolas of the gleaming white Lutheran Cathedral are a landmark on Helsinki’s skyline. Designed by C.L. Engel, the Neoclassical building sits at the top of a steep flight of steps. White Corinthian columns decorate the splendid exterior, while the inside is rather spartan. There are, however, statues of the 16th-century Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, the great humanist scholar, and Mikael Agricola, translator of the Bible into Finnish. Beneath the cathedral is a crypt, now used for concerts and exhibitions.
ATENEUM ART MUSEUM
Located in the heart of the city, next to the main station, this museum is part of the Finnish National Gallery and houses the biggest collection of art in Finland. In addition to over 20,000 works of art spanning two centuries (1750s–1950s), there are interesting temporary exhibitions. The building was designed by Theodor Höijer and completed in 1887.
KIASMA, MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
This glass and metal-paneled building, designed by American architect Steven Holl, was completed in 1998 at a cost of over 227 million Finnish markka. With its fluid lines and white interior, the museum is built in a curve to maximize natural light in the exhibition spaces. Intended as an exhibition space for post-1960 art, Kiasma hosts mixed-media shows, art installations, contemporary drama, and art workshops.
Located in the tranquil setting of Hesperia Park, striking Finlandia Hall is one of architect Alvar Aalto’s best-known works. The hall hosts conferences and events, as well as a variety of music and dance performances.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINLAND
Dating from the start of the 20th century, the National Museum of Finland is one of Helsinki’s most notable examples of Finnish National- Romantic architecture. The museum illustrates the history of Finland, from prehistory to the present day through a variety of artifacts. One of the highlights is the throne of Czar Alexander I from 1809. The striking wall painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865– 1931) in the entrance hall depicts scenes from Finland’s national epic, a poem known as the Kalevala.
Built into a granite outcrop with walls of stone, this circular “Church in the Rock” is an astonishing piece of modern architecture. Consecrated in 1969, it is the work of architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. The ceiling is an enormous, domed, copper disk, separated from the rough-surfaced rock walls by a ribbed ring of glass, which allows light to filter in from outside. The austere interior is relatively free of iconography and religious symbolism. As well as being a major visitor attraction – some half a million people come to admire the church each year – this popular Lutheran place of worship is also used for organ concerts and choral music.
SUOMENLINNA SEA FORTRESS
Constructed by the Swedes between 1748 and 1772, this island fortress is the biggest in Scandinavia and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Designed to defend the Finnish coast, Suomenlinna offered security to Helsinki’s burghers and merchants, enabling the city to flourish. The fortress contains about 200 buildings, most of which date from the 18th century. Until the early 19th century, the fortress had more residents than Helsinki. Eight hundred people still live on the islands which receive more than 800,000 visitors a year who come to enjoy the cobbled courtyards and sea views. There are many eateries, galleries, and museums, including a toy museum.